Let’s put “Social Distancing” to bed

Let’s put “Social Distancing” to bed

June 02, 2020

“Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.” - Atul Gawande

Like many of you, I have found the phrase “social distancing” making its way into my daily conversations.  Frankly, it has been hard to avoid using it, as it seems to be part of every news broadcast and social media post today.  The expression has become part of pop culture and is being used by billions of people around the globe. This is striking when one considers that most of us had never heard the term 90 days ago. How this happened is a testament to the 24-hour news cycle, globalization and the power of social media. It probably deserves its own post, but that’s a topic for another day

Let me be clear - it’s not the concept of maintaining space to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus that I take issue with; it’s the terminology itself.  While we all should be practicing “physical distancing”, I would argue that now is the time for social CLOSENESS. 

Human beings are social creatures.  Numerous studies have documented this fact, and the harmful effect that loneliness and physical isolation can have on us[1].  In fact, in 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness (the equivalent of a cabinet position in the United States) to address what is described as an epidemic and one of the UK’s most dangerous health issues.  The World Health Organization seems to agree, as it recently announced that it would begin using “physical distancing” from now on to encourage the strengthening of social ties while maintaining physical separation.[2]

As a financial advisor that works almost exclusively with retirees and those preparing to retire, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that social isolation and loneliness can have.  Our social contacts tend to naturally decrease as we age for reasons such as retirement, the death of friends and family, or lack of mobility.  More than ¼ of those over 65 live alone[3], and while this doesn’t automatically lead to social isolation, it can be a contributing factor. 

My friend, Dr. Joseph Coughlin, has written an insightful article in Forbes about how working age Americans are getting a taste of what’s experienced by many people when they retire: a disruption of the normal routine, a calendar or schedule that has radically changed, a reduced social circle and fear and uncertainty about the future.  Sound familiar?  As disconcerting as this process has been for all of us, it’s worth remembering that older workers experience this every time they leave the workforce. 

While we should all be strengthening our social ties during this time, we must not forget about the older people in our lives.  Already at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 infection, many have wisely chosen to limit in-person interactions with people outside of their household. For those that are alone, the inability to spend time with family and friends may be particularly difficult.  Limited mobility, cognitive decline, and greater vulnerability to infection make the situation with our frail elderly especially concerning.  As their social world becomes smaller, they often cannot replace person to person contact with many of the technological solutions being utilized by the rest of us.

I’ll write more about this in future blog posts, as the evidence is continuing to mount as to the importance of staying socially connected, especially in retirement.  I suspect our current situation will lead to even more studies on the impact of isolation and may well help us better understand the correlation between social interaction and our health and well-being. In the meantime, we’ll continue to physically distance ourselves from the people around us.  As we do, it is vital that we remind ourselves of the importance of staying socially connected with those that matter to us, especially those that are the oldest and most frail.

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

[1] National Institute on Aging (2019, April 23) “Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks

[2] Gale, R. (2020, March 26) “Is ‘social distancing’ the wrong term? Expert prefers ‘physical distancing,’ and the WHO agrees.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/social-distancing-coronavirus-physical-distancing/2020/03/25/a4d4b8bc-6ecf-11ea-aa80-c2470c6b2034_story.html

[3] US Census Bureau (2018, October) “The Population 65 Years and Older in the United States: 2016”  https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/acs/ACS-38.pdf